Monday, July 10, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #183 - Leon Russell - Leon Live

When Leon Russell recorded this massive 3 LP (or 2 CD) set in 1972, it seemed like he was riding a never-cresting wave of popularity and hipness. He was way more than a triple threat: he was a singer, songwriter, performer, arranger, producer and, as many saw in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, he was a guru of sorts - “the master of space and time.” His field of vision took in everything that rock was all about: raging R&B, swinging country and the life-changing properties of gospel. That’s right, much of Leon’s shtick came straight from the fire and brimstone preachers he experienced as a young person. The results were explosive. For a short few years, Leon ruled concert stages like few others. His bands were filled with serious rock and gospel session players who helped craft the contemporary sound as it existed at the time. But he brought something else to the stage as well. He was truly a proselytizer for the powers of rock and roll.

The album can be broken into three categories of performance; first a primer of great original songs by one of the best. Leon classics “Shoot Out on the Plantation,” “Dixie Lullabye,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “Prince of Peace,” “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Out in the Woods” and “Delta Lady” are all delivered with screaming rock and roll authority. His ten-piece band (including four-piece gospel combo Black Grass) burns down the barn from the first cut - an amazing medley of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” / The Coasters’ “Idol With The Golden Head” / the gospel classic “I Serve A Living Savior” / and Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn” - through to the final song, a revival tent workout of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” This mind-melting meld of songs is the second category of performance found on the album. For reasons understood only to him, Leon Russell was able to take disparate songs and recast them through his own kaleidoscopic musical world view into new parts of a different whole. Most notoriously he did this with The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Coasters’ “Young Blood” at George Harrison’s The Concert For Bangladesh in 1970. The duo of songs brought the house down and on Leon Live he repeats the feat with an even crazier 16-minute version that drives the audience bananas. On this medley, Russell employs the third type of performance while delivering the second. That third type is true gospel. Antithetical as it may seem to the party-time spirit of rock and roll, gospel is actually at the root of almost all American song, and Leon Russell embraced that concept wholeheartedly on this album. He hands the stage over to Black Grass a number of times and lets them bring the spirit while he undoubtedly rested his pipes for the next showstopper. But when he does sing, his vocal delivery is clearly influenced by the cadence and exclamatory emphasis of the clergy and it is thrilling in a way that few rockers have ever attempted.

It is indeed the unbelievable string of show-stopping moments that distinguishes Leon Live from many other live albums of the era. With an almost religious fervor (ah, there’s that gospel thing again) Leon and his killer band rock the house with peak moment after peak moment. Every song seems like an appropriate place to end the show because the band just gives it all they have every single time. By the time the show winds into a medley of two anthemic originals about self-determination - “Of Thee I Sing/Yes I Am” - the listener would be forgiven for wondering if what they were hearing was actually recorded at just one concert or not. It was. Night after night Leon and his band delivered this endless extravaganza in world-class fashion and changed hearts and minds along the way.

Rock music used to be more than a convenient soundtrack to corporate marketing efforts! It used to be a tent on the outskirts of town, where kids could meet and observe ancient and spirit-altering rituals taking place in front of their eyes, but out of sight of their parents. I used to leave concerts with a fire in my belly to change the world; now the fire is dealt with by antacids.

-         Paul Epstein

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